About the Author: Aleksandr Poniatajev is a Master’s student in Modern Asian Studies at Vilnius University in Lithuania.
He was an exchange student at Tbilisi State University. Aleksandr is interested in contemporary politics, foreign affairs, history and geography.
I believe we all had that bully in school who we were afraid of, didn’t we? I also believe that there always was a person who wasn’t afraid to stand up when everybody else did not have the courage to do it and we will always be thankful for that person.
The same thing happened to my country more than 30 years ago. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union, but the “bully” did not want to accept it – on January 13, 1991, Soviet tanks entered Vilnius killing 14 people. That might have been forgotten if nobody would have stood up against it. On February 11, 1991, Iceland became the first country in the world to formally recognise Lithuania’s independence. The New York Times wrote then that “in granting formal diplomatic recognition to besieged Lithuania, tiny Iceland has become a giant”. Even though the Soviets tried to punish Iceland by severing some trade ties and pressuring it diplomatically, Icelanders were not worried about that. That is why every year on June 17, Iceland’s Independence Day, Lithuanians say AČIŪ TAU, ISLANDIJA! by filing the Iceland street in Vilnius with laughter and joy – for a couple of times I have also been enjoying a glass of beer on the grass to celebrate this occasion.
In his speech on February 11, 2021, celebrating the 30th anniversary of this event, Foreign Minister of Lithuania, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said that “small countries can have a huge impact”. In July 2021, it has been announced that Taiwanese Representative Office will
be opened in Lithuanian capital Vilnius which has been called by Deutsche Welle as “de facto embassy of Taiwan”. Usually, other countries call such representative offices with the name of Taipei, the capital, in order to avoid angering China. The official opening ceremony of Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius took place in November later that year, and it has angered China as this contradicts with the official one China policy.
Let’s take a deeper look into what this policy means. Basically, the island of Taiwan has never been ruled by the Communist Party of China. Before the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the continental part of China had been suffering from the civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang). After the defeat by the Chinese Communist Party, more than 2 million members of Guomindang party fled to Taiwan and by using violence establish the Republic of China with party’s authoritarian regime. After that, the rest of the world has been using so called ping-pong diplomacy, when diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan) have been cut by switching them to the continental PRC instead. One of the main examples of this is that the PRC got a place in the UN’s Security Council instead of Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1971 (Taiwan had been a member of Security Council since 1946). Since 1990s, there have been two main political parties in the island – before mentioned Guomindang and the Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) which have two different visions. The DDP hold a vision that Taiwan does not have anything in common with continental China and needs to be declared as an independent democratic republic and the Guomindang holds a position that they are the legitimate governance of China and Taiwan is the “real” China. However, after the 2016 elections, when the DDP got the majority in the parliament, the Chinese Communist Party started to collaborate with the Guomindang to maintain PRC’s influence in the island and to prevent declaration of Taiwan republic as official position of Beijing is that the island of Taiwan is one of the PRC’s provinces which leads us back to “one China policy”.
That is why Lithuania’s decision angered Beijing. China has downgraded its diplomatic relations (recalling its own ambassador from Vilnius and declaring his Lithuanian counterpart persona non grata) and restricted its trade with Lithuania. One of the Chinese officials claimed that “infringing China’s sovereignty with come with a price to pay” and warned Lithuania to “take the concrete actions to correct its mistakes”. One of the China’s newspapers even wrote that Lithuania is “just a mouse, or even a flea, under the feet of a fighting elephant”.
Although only 1,1% of Lithuania’s export went to China in 2020, China has not waited long to show its power by launching a disinformation campaign. According to the Foreign Minister of Lithuania, trade partners from other countries are being approached by China saying that they should not be working with Lithuania. On the other hand, Taiwan has also shown some claws. The Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp (TTL) bought 20,000 bottles of Lithuanian rum that were supposed to be exported to China. Taiwan also said it was planning to invest 200 million dollars in Lithuania to shield the country from China’s pressure.
Unfortunately, the pressure from China might have worked. On January 7, 2022, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda expressed doubts saying that “I think it was not the opening of the Taiwanese office that was a mistake, it was its name, which was not co-ordinated with me”. It seems like a typical scenario used by other countries which I have mentioned before. This statement has absolutely been welcomed by Beijing and sadly, consolidate its power. There are talks that President’s statement has been motivated by the pressure on Lithuanian economy. However, Robertas Dargis, the President of Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, has stated in an interview on January 23 that “undoing our steps towards China would be the most unwise”, and this is coming from a person who knows business. President’s statement has also been criticised by other, considering Lithuania’s values and possibilities to withstand the pressure from China. There have also been some opinions that this step from the President might have been motivated by the relationships between Presidential Palace and Lithuanian government which lately have been tense. Lithuanian government is a strong supporter on Lithuania’s principal position when it comes to its relationships with Taiwan.
The outcome of this situation is yet to come. I hope that Lithuania will defend its values for respect of freedom. In her article, Živilė Kriščiūnė said that “Baltic states know all too well, even symbolic gestures can have a huge significance in the fight for freedom” and I could not agree more. Lithuania has already taken steps. In 1991, Iceland was not afraid to stand up and was called a “giant”. In this case, if Lithuania continues to defend its values, the “mouse” can also become a “giant” in a fight with the elephant. I hope that the EU will not stay quiet in this fight, but this is a topic for other blogs.
China’s anger against Lithuania: What does it mean for the EU? DW News. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HiA0M10K0g
Iceland Puts the West to Shame on Baltics, from 04.02.1991. Link: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/02/04/opinion/l-iceland-puts-the-west-to-shame-on- baltics-964391.html
Latschan, Thomas, Lithuania: Taking a stand against China, from 13.12.2021. Link: https://www.dw.com/en/lithuania-taking-a-stand-against-china/a-60105709
Kriščiūnė, Živilė, Lithuania‘s „Iceland Moment“ for Taiwan, from 01.05.2020. Link: https://cepa.org/lithuanias-iceland-moment-for-taiwan/
Nevett, Joshua, Lithuania: The European state that dared to defy China then wobbled, from 07.01.2022. Link: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-59879762
Savaitė, from 23.01.2022. Link: https://www.lrt.lt/mediateka/irasas/2000198525/savaite- rusija-kartu-su-baltarusija-rengiasi-kairinems-pratyboms-ar-esama-gresmes-lietuvai
*Author has also been using notes from the classes about China’s history and politics.